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Game audio overview: Sound effects for games

Game audio has the power to define the identity of a game and to drive its success. From realistic sound effects that build atmosphere to instantly recognizable themes and voiceovers that become synonymous with the title, game audio can enhance gameplay to create enchanting and memorable games that stand the test of time.

Game Developer, Staff

May 31, 2024

9 Min Read
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Introduction to game audio

Game audio has the power to define the identity of a game and to drive its success. From realistic sound effects that build atmosphere to instantly recognizable themes and voiceovers that become synonymous with the title, game audio can enhance gameplay to create enchanting and memorable games that stand the test of time.

The evolution of game audio

Audio has come a long way since Alan Blumlein first invented what we now call “stereo” in the 1930s. As technology has advanced, so has the complexity of game audio design.

Early game audio was severely constrained by the technology of the day. Hardware such as oscillators and synthesizers churned out a variety of simple beeps and tones that nonetheless managed to resonate with players, and have stuck with them decades later. 

The mid-1980s brought MIDI technology, a standard protocol that enabled a new wave of more complex, dynamic and exciting melodies and sounds to be made. MIDI tracks could use different instruments and form harmonies, which added a new dimension to game music. It brought us another step closer to adaptive game audio, tailored to different game stages, actions or moods.

The 1990s brought us the CD-ROM and, with it, a new level of sound quality. Game audio became more realistic, cinematic and immersive. Audio cues were harnessed to guide players’ actions and dialogue became crystal clear. This was also the era in which plenty of licensed music made its way into games, with the soundtracks to titles such as Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Gran Turismo and Grand Theft Auto all featuring songs by chart-topping artists.

The 2000s saw 3D game audio and graphics really taking off. Technology such as surround sound and positional audio was paired with techniques such as modulation and mixing to create more visceral, responsive environments. These all amped up the excitement and the immersion of games.

3D environments are often now a given, so today’s game audio composers face the unique challenge of creating sound that responds to players’ actions in these spaces.

This is even more complicated for virtual reality (VR) games. The human brain registers sonic discrepancies when we move our heads, so game audio must be equally responsive, complementing head tracking when wearing a VR headset. Other factors audio designers working on VR games may now need to consider are whether to opt for diegetic or non-diegetic sound, how to balance player comfort with player performance and even how game audio can be used as a tool to reduce visually induced motion sickness (VIMS).

VR is an extremely exciting area for game audio industry players to explore. Game audio experts are being given the room to experiment with the tools and techniques they need to use to create seamless and immersive virtual environments. Innovative audio solutions will be necessary to keep pace with the ever-changing VR technology landscape.

Beyond VR, there are equally as exciting opportunities arising in the audio gaming space. With no visual elements for context clues, audio games, such as Papa Sangre and The Nightjar immerse players in audio-only environments; listeners play a role in the world-building as they must use their imaginations to determine the origins of the sounds they are hearing, drawing them in in a particularly captivating and inclusive way.

Understanding the different types of game audio

Background music

Background music is the soundtrack to the game. This element of game audio has a particular influence on players’ emotions, which is integral to their immersion in and enjoyment of the game.


Sound effects (SFX) are all the sounds that objects make in a game (think ambient sounds, the two-note trill of Mario collecting a coin in Super Mario Bros, the sounds you hear when you select an option on a menu and the pained cry of an opponent struck by a deadly blow). They provide an extra dimension to the game audio, enhancing the soundscape, providing instant feedback and reinforcing the actions onscreen.


Voiceovers are character lines, announcements, dialogue, or narration. Game developers include character lines in their game audio to help us perceive characters’ moods, intentions, personalities and even cultural clues, enabling us to distinguish them from other characters. Narration and announcements can also help provide additional context, guiding players through the game and immersing them in the story.

Mastering the art of background music in games

Appropriate selection of background music

The best background music works in harmony with the visual, auditory and tactile elements of the game. It can heighten the emotion and the depth of the action onscreen, making it a crucial element of game audio. Its length, tempo, style and genre must seamlessly match that of each stage of the game to drive the narrative and fully take the player along with you on the game’s journey. Therefore, game developers need to consider what kind of music will best evoke the players’ emotions and their immersion in the game at every juncture. The main melodies should have just enough variations to surprise the player, keeping them engaged. For this reason, game audio composers tend to work with two to three themes. They can adapt each theme or motif to a certain level, stage, or character in the game, adding color and reflecting their unique characteristics while reducing player fatigue and maintaining the game’s overall sense of identity.

The impact of background music on gameplay experience

Background music adds depth and variety to the gaming experience. It works in synergy with other game audio elements and the game’s visual effects to create a multi-sensory impact, enriching the players’ interaction with the game world. It is a great tool for world-building: take, for example, “Dragonborn,” the iconic background music in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Its pulsing war drums, paired with epic strings, horns and deep vocals, really help build the world of icy tundra, ancient palaces and weapon-wielding dragon descendants, adding a sense of excitement. It can also help with storytelling, intensifying players’ intrigue and connection with the game’s characters: the background music in the adventure game What Remains of Edith Finch, for example, gradually becomes richer as each character’s imagination evolves.

Ultimately, when done right, background music can take the game to new heights: game audio playlists and fan covers of prolific background music tracks have become more widespread in recent years, expanding the reach of their respective games. 

Integrating sound effects with game mechanics

Role of sound effects in video games

Sound effects are integral to video game design: they provide an auditory canvas for all other game audio elements, such as dialogue and music. Incorporating ambient sounds into game audio can help with world-building, and spot effects, such as footsteps or weapon loading, can provide important gameplay feedback, influencing the players’ strategies and actions. Overall, sound effects contribute to the sensory richness of the game, helping immerse players in the gameplay by amplifying the onscreen actions or events, bringing immediacy and presence to the environment and reinforcing the game’s narrative.

The science of associating sounds with actions

The relationship between sound and gesture has never been more pronounced: you push a button on your microwave and expect to hear some audio feedback. You fire up your streaming app, and you expect a welcome tone. If you hear a sound you’re not expecting to hear during that process, the brain registers that something has likely gone wrong, encouraging you to troubleshoot. You try the same process again or try a different strategy to see if you get different results. Some sound effects are so ingrained into our psyches that we no longer need a visual cue to identify what they are calling for us to do: take the Windows XP error sound effect, a call to action so prolific that 10 years after the product reached the end of its life, we can hear it in countless social media skits and know exactly what the creator is trying to tell us—and not a computer in sight. Harnessing this phenomenon, game audio professionals often link specific game actions with an audio cue, with repetition reinforcing it for the players.

Examples include sounds related to selecting different options in a menu, the swish of a karate kick, the often-descending sound motif of a player falling, perishing, or the dreaded game over. Action-associated sounds are a type of feedback—one of the most effective ways to guide players through the game. These game audio cues tell players what they should or shouldn’t do (in Pac-Man, do eat the dots, don’t touch the ghosts, with different sounds presenting for each, for example) and how well they are progressing through the game. Over time, the players form these associations in their minds and can subconsciously use them to influence their next moves, focusing their attention and enhancing their gameplay.

Exploring a variety of in-game notifications

Game notifications – from level completion to game over

Music is known to drive mood. Our brains release happy chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin when we hear upbeat, joyful sounds and game audio experts can use this to reward players’ efforts.

Players often put in a great deal of effort to beat each level of a game. Anywhere else in life, you’d expect such effort to be rewarded. The failure to recognize an achievement in the game can render it a bit of a damp squib. To maintain player morale and motivate them to keep challenging themselves in the game all the way to the end, game audio professionals should build in at least some level of fanfare, ready and waiting to praise those who dare to fight their way through all the obstacles and make it to the next level. If the player has succeeded in completing a level—or, better still, completing the whole game—the trumpets of triumph can work hand in hand with onscreen graphics to lift players’ spirits, an aural pat on the back that strengthens their sense of achievement while wrapping up and drawing a line under that stage of the game. When players fail to complete a level, game audio experts should harness game over sounds to motivate players to regroup, take a breath and ultimately increase their desire or determination to try again.


Game audio should be careful, considered and enthralling. Music, dialogue and sound effects are the very heartbeat of any game, driving its narrative and fully immersing players in its realm. The future of the game audio sector is bright, promising even more innovative soundscapes, new technologies, interactive sound effects and immersive techniques that will further enhance the gaming experience.

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